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Virginia wins thriller over SMU, advances to Corpus Christi Challenge finals

Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Clinging to a one point lead with 6 seconds to play, Akil Mitchell forced a Southern Methodist turnover and Joe Harris sank two free-throws to ice a thrilling victory.  Virginia's 76-73 win over a tough Larry Brown-coached SMU team sends them to the Corpus Challenge finals tomorrow against Texas A&M or Missouri State.  It also becomes their most impressive win over the young season, as the Hoos improve to 6-1 on the season.

After suffering heart-wrenching late game defeats in close games against VCU this season and at the end of last year, the Wahoo defense held.  When SMU cut a game-high 7 point lead to one with 2:54 to play, Akil Mitchell and Markus Kennedy traded lay-ups.  The Hoos regained possession, but didn't get a shot off when Malcolm Brogdon had the ball stripped with 6 seconds to play.  But coming out of a time-out, Akil Mitchell stepped in front of the Mustang's best big man, Yanick Moreira, causing a travel.  Joe Harris made his free-throws, SMU couldn't get a desperation shot, and the Wahoos sealed the win.

Virginia will take on A&M or Missouri State tomorrow and look to break a string of truly disastrous pre-season tournaments (highlighted by last year's season-crushing home loss to Delaware).

Facing a tough matchup with a tall and well-coached squad, UVA used its outside shooting to stay in the game.  At halftime, the Hoos made just one two-pointer in 13 attempts, but went 6-8 from behind the arc, finishing shooting 10 of 14 (71.4%) from three-point range.  Joe Harris, London Perrantes, and Evan Nolte each were a perfect 3 for 3 from downtown, with Malcolm Brogdon adding UVA's other three.

The shooting of Perrantes was particularly encouraging.  London has been a steadying force all year, but struggled shooting the ball despite Coach Bennett's insisting that he buried his shots in practice.  Adding perfect three-point shooting to his now 22:6 AST:TO ratio is a nice perk.

But it was Anthony Gill who took the game over in the second half.  Gill, who finished with 19 points and 7 rebounds, was an interior force, converting 3 three-point plays.  When UVA fell behind by 7 early in the second half, he provided the first 5 points of an 8-0 scoring run capped by Justin Anderson's dunk.  A different Hoo seems to come up big every night, and tonight was Gill's night.  The remainder of the frontcourt, Darion Atkins, Mike Tobey, and Mitchell, combined for 10 points on 2-9 shooting, though Akil did pull down 9 rebounds on a night when the Hoos needed them badly.

Virginia put forth its worst defensive effort of the season (and second worst of the last 2 seasons, behind their 93-81 loss in Chapel Hill), allowing 73 points in 61 possessions.  The Hoos struggled in three main areas, all of which they had excelled in all season.  While the Mustangs are a quality team that should pose more of a challenge than the Hamptons of the world, the Wahoo defense cannot be beaten in the Packline's core strengths.

First, Virginia failed to clean up the boards, allowing 11 offensive rebounds and 16 second-chance points.  On the night, the Hoos rebounded just 65% of SMU misses, despite entering the game second in the nation at 80%.

Connected to its rebounding woes, the Hoos were abused on the interior at times by the 6-11 Moreira and 6-9 Kennedy, who combined for 25 points.  UVA entered the game holding opponents to 36% 2-point shooting, second lowest in the nation, but allowed SMU to convert 54% of twos tonight.

Finally, UVA committed 27 fouls, allowing the Mustangs to score 20 points at the free-throw line.  The officials were quick with their whistles on both sides of the ball, as UVA made 26 free-throws on 32 attempts (72%! Thank goodness!)  However, the fact remains: UVA came in leading the nation, allowing .183 FTA/FGA, but gave up .531 FTA/FGA tonight.

Coach Bennett's squad has little time to recover, as they'll compete for the coveted Corpus Christi Challenge Championship tomorrow at 9 PM.  That game will be televised once again on the CBS Sports Network.  When was the last time the Hoos won a tournament of any kind?